Could Donald Trump Become President?

Trump being interviewed after the 5th GOP debate.

Could Donald Trump become president?   The most recent GOP debate left me wondering.  Until then, I trusted that Trump’s status as Republican front-runner would evaporate when the earliest primary votes came in.  Now, I have my doubts.  Trump, who has been a candidate for just six months, gave proof in the debate that he’s learning what he must do to keep his lead and garner real votes.

Moreover, even as Trump’s field of rivals narrows, his potential as a political leader is becoming more obvious.  For better or worse, he is the lightning rod around which the energies and ideology of the party are reorganizing.  Trump may be destroying the old GOP, but, without him, the GOP would be dead.

Trump’s zenophobic views have drawn condemnation from his opponents, his party, and the media. Most continue to believe that Trump’s star will fade, leaving the nomination a battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.  But what if that isn’t true?  What if, confounding these expectations, a re-calibrated Trump continues to lead?  Not only are Trump’s tactics shifting perceptibly, but some of his ideas are beginning to seem more plausible.  Last week’s debate, which 18 million people watched, gave Trump a chance to qualify and explain the logic of his most controversial pronouncements, which collectively stand as a rebuke to the sort of political moderation that has characterized all our presidents, Democrat and Republican, since Ronald Reagan.

In the debate, Jeb Bush warned that Trump would not get to the presidency by insulting people.  In fact, Trump pointedly refrained from belittling his opponents that night: he didn’t even attack Ted Cruz (who had it coming) given the opportunity.  Likewise, most of those onstage refrained from challenging Trump directly.  As Trump pointed out, though, moderators repeatedly asked Trump’s challengers to comment on his ideas, a pattern that only confirmed his centrality.

Trump’s doggedness paid off in the skill with which he defended and refined some of his positions. Beneath his intolerable soundbites are more focused convictions, such as that the government should be tapping the nation’s best people to thwart the internet being used to promote violence and terror.  Trump believes that neighbors and families who wink at subversive terrorist behavior in the US should expect to be severely punished.

Overall, Trump (who is not a social conservative) is tapping into a frustration that the US is failing to use all the tools and resources that it has to maintain internal order and safeguard its global economic supremacy.  A natural ideologue, Trump is carving out stands on illegal immigration and domestic security that are compatible with his interest in ending economic policies and practices benefiting rival nations at the US’s expense.  Trump’s intentions jibe with the people’s desire to see the value of their citizenship restored.

So, could a toned-down Trump garner enough popular support to be president?  Like it or not, the answer is yes.  Trump, Cruz, and, yes, Jeb Bush are shaping the parameters of this epoch-making campaign.  Could any one of them defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election?

For a transcript of the debate, click here.
For a fact-check of the debate, click here.

Who Will Climb to the Top of the GOP Heap?

The GOP heap (photomontage), © 2015 Susan Barsy
My take on the declared Republican presidential candidates.  They are listed in reverse order, from least to most likely to rise to the top of the heap.  Those in red I consider to have no chance of winning.

16. Ben Carson  Lacks government experience.  Our nation and its foreign affairs are too complex to hand over to a novice.

15. Carly Fiorina  Her record as a business executive is too mixed to warrant considering her as a candidate for the nation’s chief executive.  She failed to gain the confidence of California voters in a run for the Senate, a proof of her unelectability.

14. George Pataki  Who?  To say that he’s missed his moment is an understatement.

13. Donald Trump  In his previous run, he proved himself a wash-out, using his candidacy to cast groundless aspersions against President Obama’s Americanness.  He’s followed this up with offensive remarks about Mexicans.  Basically a nativist, Trump shows an utter disregard for popular sentiment in putting himself forward again.

12. Ted Cruz  Smart, but too unlikable to be a viable candidate. He believes he needs no one else, a red flag given that our political system is based on interdependency.  Cruz has recklessly pitted himself against others, including wiser members of his own party, revealing a narcissism that’s pretty scary.

11. Mike Huckabee  He washed out in the previous presidential election cycle as soon as he faced primaries in the large urbanized states; what has changed?

10. Rick Santorum  Similarly, this guy has a problem tolerating diversity.  He fizzled out last time and hasn’t scored any big accomplishment to improve voters’ negative perceptions of him.   

9. Chris Christie  An east-coast media darling.  Someone who disavows responsibility for his underlings in the tiny state of New Jersey shouldn’t be put in charge of a vast federal bureaucracy.

8. Scott Walker  He’s far too provincial and inexperienced to be put in charge of America’s foreign affairs.  I’m not sure he could pass a course in geography.  Remember Rick Perry?  Walker is unlikely to fare well with a population that’s far more ethnically and racially diverse than that of Wisconsin.  Charges of corruption have already begun dogging him.

7. Marco Rubio  He’s smart; he’s likeable; but he isn’t ready.  While he’s shown his ability to ‘talk the talk’ with Florida’s diverse voters, I doubt that struggling Americans will find much to identify with in him.  He’s more of a wunderkind, a Latino JFK.

6. Bobby Jindal  Smarter and more nuanced than Scott Walker, Jindal is a talent with significant liabilities.  Though I wrote him off a long time ago after his abysmal 2009 State of the Union Response, he conveys more sophistication and sincerity when speaking off the cuff.  As a man of color, a Southerner (not a Floridian—big difference), and a child of immigrants, he speaks effectively about the need for cultural unity, a major underlying worry that American leaders seldom constructively address.  This guy doesn’t play identity politics—hooray!   He needs to get onto the national stage, but is running for president this time around really the best way?

5. Rick Perry  Like it or not, we have to pay attention to him, because he’s governing one of the largest of the states and by some measures it’s thriving.  He’s still going to have problems persuading anyone that he’s competent to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs, but his no-holds-barred pro-corporate approach to the economy is going to win him a lot of powerful backing.  He’s going to emerge as the leading pro-business anti-regulation candidate (unless he fails to beat those felony charges).

4. Lindsey Graham  An interesting candidate who’s got some name recognition and might be an effective president, given his extensive experience of Washington and the Senate.  He’s got foreign-policy chops, coupled with what pass for socially moderate views, but is probably too much of a hawk to prevail, given that main-street Americans wants to do less overseas.  He might do better than expected if he succeeds in mobilizing the southern and mid-Atlantic base of the GOP outside Florida.  On the other hand, he might suffer from “Senator-speak,” Christopher Dodd’s problem.

3. John Kasich  You haven’t been hearing much about him because he’s been too busy running Ohio.  Besides, this guy will never be much of a media darling.  Of all the truly conservative candidates, however, this one is the most formidable, because he is from a large industrial state, and is the most experienced of all candidates in addressing the nation’s profound economic pain on the front line.  I believe that as many of the less viable conservative candidates drop out, conservative voters will gravitate toward Kasich.

2. Jeb Bush  He will remain near the top because he is the safest choice.  Choosing the “Bush brand’ means getting all the human capital arrayed around the Bushes in their individuality—a factor positively associated with continuity in these changing and uncertain times.  Wigged out by all the unknown qualities of all the other candidates, many moderate and benighted GOP voters will pull the lever for Bush.  The candidate himself has yet to show that he has a ‘fire in his belly,’ making him vulnerable to more ardent rivals, like Rand Paul.

1. Rand Paul  This guy remains formidable because he’s one of the few candidates who could draw in a lot of voters who don’t normally swing Republican and beat Hillary Clinton.  Moreover, with his off-beat combination of libertarian and unorthodox views, Paul is one of the few Republican candidates who could actually catalyze the Republican Party and configure it into something new.   He’s won a lot of respect because of his willingness to assert his convictions without doing so (as Cruz has) at the expense of his party.  His opposition to the growing surveillance state and his occasional willingness to cross the aisle to support positions similar to those of President Obama mark him as a maverick and a game-changer within the GOP.  It would be cool if he could redefine the voting blocks that make up the GOP, something that hasn’t been done since the Reagan Revolution of 1980.